The Complexity of Phenomenal Consciousness for Science, Essay Example
On each stage of civilizational development, different answers were given to the universal questions of who human beings are, how they function and what is their role in the universe. However, even at the present stage of particle colliders and exploration of the universe, humanity is still far from understanding and explaining of mind and the origins of consciousness and its consequent functionality. The aim of this essay is to explain why Thomas Nagel is convinced that phenomenal consciousness is an in intractable problem for science, whether he is right or wrong. The answers to these questions will be supported with the relevant arguments.
In order to understand the rationale of Nagel’s doubt in the scientific ability to explain phenomenal consciousness, it is essential to outline what is meant by it. The distinction between phenomenal and access consciousness was made by Ned Block. By phenomenal consciousness is meant “a mental state that is phenomenally conscious is state that there is something it’s like to be”; on the other hand, “an access conscious state is, roughly, one whose content is available for various cognitive operations: action, reasoning, and verbal report” (Byrne, 1997, p. 105). In this regard, Byrne outlines that when Nagel argues that consciousness makes mind-body issue intractable, he refers exactly to phenomenal consciousness.
The primary argument of Nagel regarding mind-body problem, phenomenal consciousness and science is based on the statement that physics and any other science cannot explain the connection between the physical processes in the brain and appearance of the consciousness and certain mental states (Platchias, 2014). In this regard, by simple concentration on the exploration of the physical dimension of the connection, meaning the brain, the science loses the systematic capacity of explaining and realising the mental part of the connection, meaning the consciousness as a complex phenomenon.
In this regard, his argument suggests that mental activity is distinct from any other aspect of the reality, and just as biology deals with different aspects of the material world than physics, so does the mental aspect of reality (Searle, 1992). Consequently, while various sciences address different aspects of reality, they cannot perceive and explain consciousness because they use the toolkit particular to their aspect of reality rather than broadening their tools for exploration of a distinct mental realm of consciousness (Platchias, 2014).
Furthermore, he argues that, from the existential perspective, mind activity and consciousness are distinct aspect of existence, and therefore cannot be explained in terms of naturalistic theories of life development, particularly Darwin’s theory of evolution (Platchias, 2014). In this regard, Nagel argues that the primary problem of science with mind-body connection is that until nowadays just as each science excludes perspectives of one another, most of them exclude the mind element from their exploration and explanation of the world:
“The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of the world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws. But at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind”
In this regard, Nagel suggests that the science cannot explain mind because it limits itself with the physicality rather than systematic exploration of the subject matter using both physical (quantitative) and mental (qualitative) methods of research. Nagel does not suggest that mind can be explored through one’s personal point of view or self-analysis but that scientific approach as it is now, cannot explain mind because it has to means to examine it with the limitations of each science (Maloney, 1985).
According to Nagel, the primary issue for science with phenomenal consciousness is its inevitable subjectivity and uniqueness for each particular individual. In this regard, in his primary essay on the subject matter “What it is like to be a Bat?” (1974), he argued that irrespective of the knowledge of all physical characteristics of a bat, its biological lifestyle and behavioural patterns, one cannot understand what it is like to be a bat, how it feels to be one and how it perceives the world around it (Nagel, 1974). In this regard, science misses this individuality of feeling of being something or someone and perceiving it in a single unique way. Consequently, one of the reasons why phenomenal consciousness is intractable for science is that science deals with universal facts and leaves out the perceptual and individual emotional subjectivity related to these facts (Platchias, D. 2014).
Furthermore, Nagel argues that since biology or physics embodied in the theory of evolution cannot explain the evolution of mind and connection between mind and body; then the mind should have existed in the creation from the very start (Searle, 1992). In this regard, he uses the argumentation of an irreducible faculty – the self-sufficient reason for the existence of the mental realm and consciousness in the universe. This statement is one of the most controversial in his argument, but challenges the science in the most crucial way, asking it to explain how biologically and physically it is possible for the development of beings capable of perceiving of the natural order and its rules (Maloney, 1985). In this regard, the challenge for the science and intractability of consciousness is that it cannot find that reason for the consciousness to exist and the rationale for the very human understanding of it (Searle, 1992).
Although various scientists argue that mind was evolving together with the human biological and physical evolution, and that its capacity was largely conditioned by the size of the brain, still natural sciences cannot explain how useful individual perception, feelings and self-examination and personal self-satisfaction are helpful from the evolutional perspective and one’s adaptability to the changes in the surrounding environment (Van Gulick, 1986). In other words, the scientific inability to explain individuality and subjectivity of phenomenal consciousness in terms of existing concepts of survival and adaptation makes phenomenal consciousness an intractable issue for the science (Searle, 1992). For the science to be able to perceive and explore phenomenal consciousness, it would have to expand its boundaries beyond mere facts towards cause-effect relationship and causality of existence in the universe. This is particularly crucial since reality is far from being just a totality of facts and physical phenomena:
“On the other side, there are doubts about whether the reality of such features or our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts –facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.”
Although various philosophers supporting science tried to refute Nagel’s argument, I consider that he is right in his statement that phenomenal consciousness is intractable for the science at the stage as it is now and with the tools and paradigms it uses to explain it. This statement is further explained by the refutations of the criticism of Nagel’s position.
Criticism of Nagel’s point of view and its refutation
Nagel’s primary argument that phenomenal consciousness is individual and subjective and thus cannot be explained by universal physical or biological rules is often refuted by arguing that “one way differences arise in sensory experiences is from variations in sense organs, or other aspects of physical makeup; experiences also vary from individual to individual because of such factors as background and previous experience. When these factors diverge markedly, aspects of our sensory experiences may as well” (Rosenthal, 1986, p. 351). This argumentation sounds entirely rational and scientific in its layout, but it also undermines the universality of physical and biological explanation of reality and human perception of it. For instance, if every single individual has a different sensory ability to perceive reality and experiences, until which extent the universal knowledge of the world is possible, if every single aspect of it is perceived by sensory experiences differently (Searle, 1992). Following the path of this argumentation further, it can be assumed that the perception of reality by schizophrenics is correct because it is based on the specific condition of their sensory system creating a unique perception of reality.
Thus, the attempt to physically explain subjectivity and individuality of phenomenal consciousness can lead to even more crucial challenging of the very unity of the existing physical reality. In this regard, Rosenthal suggests that the reality remains the same, but the mental contexts in which experiences occur are different and conditioned by physical qualities of sensory system (Rosenthal, 1986). This course of thought is aimed to accommodate Nagel’s statement that phenomenal consciousness and individuality of perception result in subjective character and feeling of being a distinct living entity. Rosenthal suggests that “the consciousness of those experiences, by contrast, is simply that individual’s being aware of having their experiences” (Rosenthal, 1986, p. 352).
Once again, this argument is based on the reductionism of the complexity of one’s phenomenal consciousness to a mere sensory differentiation and awareness of experiences. However, this argument and way of thought does not explain the reason for that difference and how it is related to the physicality and adaptability of the human body in the evolutionary discourse (Van Gulick, 1986). This argumentation also does not explain what exactly is meant by “sensory qualities of conscious experience,” does it really mean that certain combination of hormones or alteration of electronic impulses can replicate the same phenomenal consciousness from one individual to another and change one’s self-perception into a different one. In this regard, the problem of reducing mental and conscious processes to physical dimension is that eventually the human individuality and uniqueness of personality traits become erased by physical processes that might be characteristic of human beings but still cannot explain human individuality and subjectivity of perception and phenomenal consciousness (Maloney, 1985).
Moreover, there is another argument of the subjectivity of phenomenal consciousness that Rosenthal’s refutation and science cannot explain – creativity. The human ability to create something new in one’s mind cannot be explained by simple physics of things or specifics of sensory system or experiences perception (Maloney, 1985). Although an individual might perceive experiences differently due to the sensory system specifics, it does not explain the source of human creativity and the phenomenon of geniality and talent. In this regard, simple sensory qualities of processing experience cannot stand for the individual human talent and unconventional thinking and creativity. Although science can explain how ions are running in one’s brain, it cannot explain how one writes a novel or creates a painting, where that creativity and unconventionality of the world perception comes from.
Although one’s idea of creating something new can be inspired by various personal experiences, Rosenthal’s sensory qualities of conscious experience (which are not defined by science, yet used for its protection) do not explain how the new unconventional idea occur from seemingly nowhere. For instance, even such inventions of technology as wheel, internet cubism came from somewhere, the origin of the idea, the thought that started the process of the creation of the new things came from somewhere (Searle, 1992). Even Rosenthal’s arguments and this counterargument was born from a unique idea that although was conditioned by numerous experiences and individual thinking process, still was born from nowhere into mental existence and then can be implemented in physical embodiment. In this regard, Nagel’s phenomenal consciousness explains the development of new ideas and creativity better than Rosenthal’s sensory qualities or science, which still cannot explain the origin of the idea and creativity or inventions (Searle, 1992).
Another argument in favour of Nagel’s statement regarding phenomenal consciousness and science is introspection. The main distinction between perception and introspection is that perception of reality is mostly indirectly and requires a certain cognitive process, while introspection is a direct and unmediated process (Rosenthal, p. 354). Since the process of introspection is self-sufficient in itself without the necessity of external intervention, its exploration by conventional scientific means is virtually impossible. In this regard, an individual’ self-perception and self-identification cannot be qualified in terms of the movement of electrons and atoms in one’s brain, it requires qualitative approach of research and acceptance of individuality of each human being in terms of the process of introspection (Maloney, 1985).
Inevitably, introspection is crucial in how human beings distinguish and describe various mental states. It is essential in explaining conscious mental states. In this regard, the problem for the science is that if mental states are largely conditioned by the process of introspection that is individual and internalised, the element of subjectivity and inability of verification problematic for science becomes evident. In this regard, the case when one’s mental state can be identified only on the basis of personal, individual self-assessment, the physics and biology simply cannot rationalise the phenomenon without exact material evidence. In other words, if there are not physical and biological evidence of a certain mental state, it is difficult if not impossible for the science to acknowledge its existence and thus to explain it in relation to the physical world (Platchias, 2014).
In general, the reason why I am convinced that Nagel is right is because he does not accept the constancy of the world perception as it is perceived by the contemporary science. He challenges scientists to think more systematically about the world and accept the complexity of human existence rather than deny one of the aspects for the sake of accuracy of calculations. Looking at his justifications with an open mind, one can see that just as Galileo or Newton were perceived to be insane for their believes, if the status quo of the dominant world perception is not challenged and new paths of research and thinking are not developed than no evolution would be possible. Although, today, Nagel’s views can be perceived as unbelievable, they might become part of the science of tomorrow. In this regard, even his argument that consciousness is universal and constant element of the self-conscious universe is not so controversial when perceived from the spiritual perspectives of various religions.
Regarding the religious context and Nagel’s argument, the primary point is not in to find God through phenomenal consciousness or justify his existence. The primary point is the conclusion that religious people, philosophers and even scientists come to: there is some power beyond human understanding. While religious people argue that it is God, Nagel suggests that it is universal consciousness that all people share and crave for, scientists come to the point where they cannot find the essence of existence since the smallest undividable particle of the atom and its relation to human mind cannot be perceived and understood by their technologies. Thus, the contemporary science limited by its present singular perception of the world in physical dimensions cannot perceive the complexity of existence without accepting the mind and conscious aspect of the human existence. It is a good stimulation for the next generation of scientists to consider in their future explorations.
Byrne, A. 1997. Some Like it Hot: Consciousness and Higher-Order Thoughts. Philosophical Studies, 86, pp. 103-129.
Maloney, J. 1985. About being a bat. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 63, pp.26-49.
Nagel, T. 1974. What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review, LXXXIII, pp. 435-450.
Nagel, T. 2012. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Platchias, D. 2014. Phenomenal Consciousness: Understanding the Relation Between Experience and Neural Processes in the Brain. Oxon: Routledge.
Rosenthal, D.M. 1986. Two Concepts of Consciousness. Philosophical Studies, 49, 359.329-359.
Searle, J.R. 1992. The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge: Massachusetts University Press.
Van Gulick, R. 1986. Physicalism and the subjectivity of the mental. Philosophical Topics, 13, pp. 51-70.
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